Stephen Hawking, for One, Does Not Welcome Our Potential Alien Overlords

By Andrew Moseman | April 26, 2010 9:30 am

Independence DayIn a half-century of hunting, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has turned up nary a whisper from E.T. But for renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the non-success of SETI and others who hope to contact alien life might be for the best: Aliens, he says, might not like us.

Hawking caused waves with this suggestion in his new Discovery Channel special, which debuted last night. He has long believed that extraterrestrial life exists, simply because of the sheer vastness of the universe. While much of what’s out there might be simple microbial life, there may indeed be new civilizations far more advanced than our own. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be friendly.

Said Hawking: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach” [The Times].

Should aliens decide to drop in on our pale blue dot, he predicts they may come not in a spirit of peace and understanding, but more likely in the spirit with which Europeans conquered Native Americans and colonized what’s now the United States. These alien wanderers similarly might see human society as primitive and unimportant, and attack our planet for its resources, he says.

While Hawking contends that contacting E.T. would be quite risky for us, he also considers the possibility that we’ll never get the chance, even if there are advanced civilizations on distant worlds. “Perhaps they all blow themselves up soon after they discover that E=mc2. If civilizations take billions of years to evolve, only to vanish virtually overnight, then sadly we’ve next to no chance of hearing from them” [MSNBC].

The four-part TV special, which DISCOVER previewed in our April issue, took Hawking and the producers three years to create. Besides the alien menace, Hawking also had a little fun with time travel last night, throwing a party for time travelers and sending out invitations after the party (nobody from the future comes). The third and fourth parts, covering the life and death of the universe, air this coming Sunday, May 2.

For another take on Hawking’s comments, head to Bad Astronomy where Phil Plait takes a more skeptical view of the potential for doom-wielding alien visitors.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Stephen Hawking Is Making His Comeback
DISCOVER: Inside the World of Stephen Hawking
DISCOVER: Hawking’s Exit Strategy
DISCOVER: The Best in Science Culture This Month
Cosmic Variance: Hawking: Beware the Alien Menace!
Bad Astronomy: In Which I Disagree With Stephen Hawking

Image: “Independence Day” / Centropolis Entertainment

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • NewEnglandBob

    As I posted at Cosmic Variance and Bad Astronomy:

    Maybe real intelligent life wouldn’t bother to even try to colonize other places because they find a much better way to live happy, productive lives without needing lebensraum.

  • jumblepudding

    Conquistador aliens? The best bet is to interbreed with them.

  • Napoleon

    I’m sure any advanced life form out there in our galaxy region already knows about us humans as pathetic, destructive, and simply too neanderthalish to even bother with us.

  • scott

    I think any life form would have the same drive for survival at the expense of other life forms. Any aliens with the technology to get here would be able to take us out or do whatever it wanted with us and or resources.

    I think he is right…best to be keep our little blue gem hidden (by not sending “here we are messages”) – as long as we dont destroy it ourselves because each religion cant get along and corporate execs cant get enough money….those two issues seem to be our biggest threat. Religious destruction and greed with no desire to share or help out, others or the ecosystem. Those threats are worse than any natural disaster, currently anyway.

  • J Hanson

    Why is the discussion, not just here but everywhere I’ve seen, about this one passing comment? What Hawking said that is significant and needs to be talked about is that we need to spread out into space if we are going to survive. Right wing pundits and their followers are constantly saying that space exploration is a waste of money and has no point. We need to inform the public of the reasons we need to get ‘up and out’, if we don’t the alternative could be the realization of the right wing agenda; Don’t conserve our environment and so have no place to live here and don’t go into space.

  • scribbler

    The Earth’s resources???

    With the sole exception of life, it would be easier to get whatever they wanted elsewhere…

    As for the resource of life, other than FOOD, what would they want with us???

    ;-)

    (thumbing through copy of “How to prepare man”…)

  • Ken Chang

    Native Americans vs Europeans was human to human contact. These aliens, we will have never seen anything or anyone like it, and their behavior may be completely different from that of humans. And it’s pretty egotistical to think that we’re the only planet around with huge supplies of materials. Maybe the reason why we haven’t seen them yet is because our planet has a such minuscule amount of valuable material to them that it’s not worth the time.

  • http://twitter.com/meredithperry AstroMer

    I watched the episode and was pretty disappointed with Hawking. The captivating british voiceover and aesthetically pleasing cartoons were cool, but the content was devoid of anything other than pure fantasy. Statements made were entirely earth-centric and were formed with seemingly little thought, which is especially surprising for someone as intelligent as Stephen Hawking. To say that life on a different planet would probably have legs just because the planet has a hard surface is incredibly myopic. In addition, an alien invasion is not only not going to happen, but it’s also not the right message that should be sent out to the public when trying to generate interest in astrobiology. If there is intelligent life out there that we could perceive (or that could perceive us) close enough that they could physically reach us (no less invade our planet), we would know about it. There are a million and one assumptions made in even speculating at the idea of an alien invasion. Hawking’s views are too parochial and unimaginative, and I hope people will realize that!

  • MikeK

    AstroMer: Mr Hawking made very few assumptions in what I read. He gave a premise which as real or as far fetched as you may believe. His assessment involves why they might come here in the first place. He bases his conjecture on humanities past, namely taking over new territories and removing the indigenous peoples.
    NASA is studying ways to establish bases on the Moon and Mars. Included in their dialog is how to find and utilize the resources they might find there.
    Mr. Hawking only expresses that they would find this planet and figure out what they could do with it for their own gain regardless of our needs. His assumption would be that aliens would behave just like us.

  • http://twitter.com/meredithperry AstroMer

    Right, which is a poor assumption, and based on a billion other assumptions about alien structure, intelligence (what is intelligence?), desires (if they have those), mobility (if they move), perception (if they could even perceive us)…… see what I’m saying?

  • Anomnibus

    Who’s making assumptions now? The idea is that they may or may not be peaceful. It is impossible to know untill they arrive, if they do. However, one assumption that can be safely made, if the alleged space-fairing aliens happen to be hostile and desire our resources or simply want to exterminate any other ‘intelligent’ species, what could we possibly do to stop it? Perhaps we should not be broadcasting our location so openly.

    Furthermore, we have only been looking for intelligent life around us for less than a century. Assuming that we would already know about an alien civilization nearby is foolish considering the minute window that we have been able to receive even radio communications.

  • Chris the Canadian

    Hawking makes assumptions based on the only forms of intelligent life that we know; the animals of earth. Intelligence isn’t just a human trait. Primates as a whole, Dogs, Cats, Dolphins, and a variety of other species have intelligence. Even Crows show a highly advanced ability to learn and absorb information.

    What else does he have to compare to? He bases his assumptions on what he knows of intelligent life. If aliens do act like humans then yes, more than likely they will be fairly unfriendly and looking to maximize on our resources. By the way, it was ON TELEVISION. There is very little real science on tv as it is, and entertainment value is far more important nowadays than accuracy. Hawking is at least bringing attention and light to questions that should be asked. Will I live long enough for our species to have a confirmed close encounter? Probably not, but it is so fun to just think about it and dream isn’t it?

    Oh yes, as for the commodity we have here: H2O. Water.

  • Mind Deep

    Interesting data analysis of enormous quantity of recent astronomical observations of hundreds of exoplanetary systems is showing that most alien planetary distributions around other stars are painfully and drastically DIFERENT to our very scientifically propagandized egocentric
    distribution of these bodies in our solar system. These observations imply
    a very different natural process in the cosmogenic formation of exoplanets that the theoretical process we elaborate for our system based in the only data we had before the inmense flood of exoplanet discoveries of the last decade. The potential implications of this data for imagining alien overlords are astounding: may be they designed our peculiar planet distribution for other philosophical motives that merely technological.This
    is far away of any disparate intelligent design idea.

  • Drifter

    How sure are we that H2O will even be an important resource for other alien life forms? That’s how life developed here, and that’s all ever assume: that life needs water. Until we have explored other planets entirely and have surely found that life absolutely needs water, I’m going to keep my mind open about it.

  • rabidmob

    Steven Hawking is a brilliant man.

    Even if the aliens did not want our resources it is possible they would stamp us out before we became a potential threat or competitor for whatever resource they do desire.

  • Willliam H. Depperman

    [Moderator’s note: This comment and its two companion comments were deleted because they were monstrously long and off-topic. This blog is not the proper forum for attempted refutations of Stephen Hawking’s work on black holes or discussions of alien-piloted UFOs.]

  • Dust

    Much of space exploration at this time is a waste of time and resources. As much as I love it, I believe time and resources need to be utilized for the betterment of earth and it inhabitants. We need to weave our global societies together with peace and unity with all its wonderful diversity.Moving out into the cosmos is a wonderful and difficult responsibility that we all share. It will take hundreds and maybe thousands of years to make any truly significant ventures into space. So we need to survive those years so we can get out there. Survival will only happen when we cooperate with each other and with nature as a whole.We don’t survive; We don’t fly. What a shame that would be.

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    I would just as soon not run into anything from beyond our world. The Europeans brought a lot of new technology to America, but I bet the Indians would have been happy to be left alone.

    And….since they weren’t in India the were misnamed. Imagine if aliens came here and kept calling us Martians – we wouldn’t think they were so advanced after all.

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    I can imagine the are many creatures on other planets. But we will never have the chance to meet them in a billion years!

  • http://www.bigstreetart.com Matt Harper

    Hawking has suggested the possibility of alien life before but his views have been clarified by a series of scientific breakthroughs, such as the discovery, since 1995, of more than 450 planets orbiting distant stars, showing banksy prints that planets are a common phenomenon.

    So far, all the new planets found have been far larger than Earth, but only because the telescopes used to detect them are not sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized bodies at such distances.

    Another breakthrough is the discovery that life on Earth has proven able to colonise its most extreme environments. If life can survive and evolve there, scientists reason, then perhaps nowhere is out of bounds.

    Hawking’s belief in aliens places him in good scientific company. In his recent Wonders of the Solar System BBC series, Professor Brian Cox backed the graffiti idea, too, suggesting Mars, Europa and Titan, art moon of Saturn, as likely places to look.

    Similarly, Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, warned in a lecture earlier this year that aliens might prove to be beyond human-understanding.

    “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive,” he said. “Just as a chimpanzee can’t graffiti understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”

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  • jakelope

    I for one do not know why we are so anxious to try and contact aliens.So far, our bounds are not that far for space travel. If they have come to Earth, that signifies that they have much more advanced technologies and most likely have the capabilities of exterminating the human race. And if we do contact extraterrestrial life at some point, why do we think that they would be willing to become allies with us? We don’t know if they would be friendly or if they would not like us at all, and I don’t think we need to figure that question out. I agree completely with Steven Hawking on this subject.

  • Johnny5

    I was thinking that if we think evil will come than maybe we have attracted to our planet. by living evil, evil see that and thinks that’s a good place to begin and live in. but by living right doing good the universe will send us our fears and doubts its called The Law of attractions. whats reflected in our hearts and minds., the truth is that the universe is created in love and yes we live in a blond state on earth. If Alien being are able to leave their planet and converse threw the universe it must be in Yahweh will for them to achieve such a fate to come to earth for reason that’s is only based on our perceptions, from watching TV and entertainment we are setting our self up to fail either before we succeed. In reality if we can not trust ourselves how can we trust others. If evil they do than evil they be. If good they do than good they be. But lies they speak and truth they hide than logic says that not Good at all or is it.

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    Zilion Galaxys multiple zilion dimensions and we are only inteligent creatures? Cmon!

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    Matt Harper raises some interesting points above. Sadly i thought the show was a little dumbed down and all the computer graphics a little OTT. Would have preferred a bit more meat personally, more akin to Jim al Khalili’s recent shows with more content and less techy graphics designed to wow the audience.

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    Well, Stephen Hawking is smart and does have some point – but for anyone who has traveled the netherworlds of the mind it is clear we are too trapped in materialism – including our view of “aliens” – what are real aliens would likely be nothing like us and exist in many other ways we cannot imagine, as I would suspect is likely is happening in some way right now…. as terence mckenna said: the universe isn’t just stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we CAN suppose – something too many physicists are blind to with the idea of universal laws that can be gotten at – and naive of all that some how we, humans, can find “THE ANSWER” of everything… at best we can find consistent physical properties through the lens of being a human being with human consciousness at this moment in time… our 5 senses – even aided by technology and our mind, are a barrier which cannot be crossed. Aliens I expect are all around us but not in the way TV and mass culture perceives the word and idea

  • Steve Wilks

    Steven Hawkin I find is usually correct in most of his theories. The fact that aliens are out there (well, its not fact… yet) is something widely accepted amongst astrologers and if correct, the fact that they could be hostile is something that cant be ignored. Scientists are looking towards the telescopes used to monitor asteroids as tools that could be used as protection for the human race. Either way, its a topic I dont see going away.

    Especially not with Hawkins promoting it!

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    If they have come to Earth, that signifies that they have much more advanced technologies and most likely have the capabilities of exterminating the human race. And if we do contact extraterrestrial life at some point, why do we think that they would be willing to become allies with us? We don’t know if they would be friendly or if they would not like us at all, and I don’t think we need to figure that question out

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    “How sure are we that H2O will even be an important resource for other alien life forms? ”

    Its why you hear most scientist refer to it as ” life as we know it”, water based life. They know life could be based on something else, we just haven’t seen it yet. From what we have seen its all water based, but that could change

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